Grief and Violence in The Last of Us Part 2
“If I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself”
[MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US PART 2]
The opening line of Pearl Jam’s 2014 single “Future Days” is heard several times throughout The Last of Us Part 2, first shared between Joel and Ellie as he teaches her guitar near the game’s start, then replayed at semi-regular intervals throughout: “If I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself.” This line works firstly as a particularly cruel piece of ironic foreshadowing – since Ellie will soon lose Joel, and she does indeed find her mental state unraveling due to the actions she takes in response – and then, during each of its later refrains, as a reminder of her journey, as her determined course of revenge against Joel’s killers sees her losing her humanity in an escalating orgy of violence. She loses Joel, and her own identity falters further with each step she takes towards avenging him.
But I think these lyrics explain the process of grief and its potentially catastrophic results on an even deeper level. The question my point leaves hanging – and one that’s increasingly pertinent to our world outside the game – is why, exactly, can losing someone close to us send us down the sort of path Ellie takes? Why does loss turn a balanced and friendly young woman into a brutal mass murderer? Because we need to get revenge, right – but why? These are questions that the lyrics directly answer, because they don’t only foreshadow the destination Ellie approaches, but they explain, too, why the act of loss often takes the shape it does – or why exactly loss catalyses heading down that path in the first place. “I’d surely lose myself” points to the destination Ellie reaches as she winds her increasingly bloody course through Seattle and Santa Barbara in pursuit of Abby and the rest of the WLF crew, sure. But it also points to the reasons why the loss of Joel might make that destination so tempting.
Ellie’s loss of her ‘self’ isn’t just the result of her journey into brutality; it’s also the spark. To grasp why this is so, and to understand the deeper meaning in the lyrics, we can look to Judith Butler’s exploration of the many facets of the relationship between loss and violence in an edited collection of essays called Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (2004). Loss, Butler argues, is often followed by violence, so we shouldn’t regard Ellie’s actions as particularly unusual or unlikely. Butler is interested in both largescale acts of violence that provoke nationwide mourning, like in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, but also the more singular loss of a loved one that accompanies any individual death (though I guess any distinction we might draw here becomes a little slippery in the recognition that the former is ultimately just a huge collection of instances of the latter). Loss makes us uniquely vulnerable, and the human tendency seems to Butler to lead us towards compensating for this vulnerability with acts of aggression towards other people, whether this be in the shape of military action against countries presumed to be responsible, or picking a fight with a group of strangers in a bar. Or, in Ellie’s case, travelling hundreds of miles to butcher an army of German Shepherds (who we soon learn really just want to play fetch all day) and stab a pregnant woman to death in an aquarium.
It’s when we look at Butler’s psychoanalytic exploration of why we react in this way that we can understand how the line “If I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself” doesn’t just refer to the mental place Ellie is at once she’s done all this, but explains why the need to do so completely took her over. Have a think, for a moment, about everything that makes you you. And then have a think for just one further moment about how many of those things you’d point to that make you you aren’t actually, literally, you. They’re things or people that are distinctly other than you, but that nonetheless sort of aren’t, because they hold you together.
Ellie, I mean, isn’t just Ellie – not if we take ‘Ellie’ to refer to a completely autonomous subject whose identity is entirely circumscribed within the physical limits of the body that the noun ‘Ellie’ would generally be taken to refer to. She’s the girl who Joel escorted all the way from Boston to Salt Lake City; the girl for whom Joel committed acts of violence of his own in order to keep safe from the Fireflies and their plans for a cure; the girl who Joel taught to play guitar, who he gave an unforgettable trip into space (sort of) to celebrate her birthday and who became no less than his surrogate daughter. Ellie isn’t, then, an island. Much of her identity is bound up within that of another person; and because our identity isn’t entirely self-contained, because key aspects of it might reside elsewhere, the loss of that external site is, quite literally, the reduction of our own self too. As Butler puts it, “It is not as if an ‘I’ exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there, especially if the attachment to ‘you’ is part of what composes who ‘I’ am” (Butler, 2004: 22). Ellie doesn’t, then, lose herself at a later point to Joel’s death, once she’s done all of the horrible stuff she wouldn’t have thought herself capable of were he still alive; she loses herself the moment his life switches out and takes a large portion of hers along with it. And at the same time as scores of Americans went through the same process with their own individual lost love ones and the portions of their own selves that died too, the United States itself lost its own sense of self-sufficiency and capacity for self-definition the moment it became the object of a sentence that recast it as the victim of a terrorist attack by a third party.
All of these self-dependencies that loss can provocatively highlight are distinctly against much of what the Western philosophical and political traditions tells us about the autonomy and self-sufficiency of identity – not so much ‘I think therefore I am’, but ‘you exist therefore I am, and if you didn’t, then I wouldn’t be able to in the same way either.’ Butler even suggests a reason why this might be an especial challenge for a LGBT character like Ellie, since members of groups who have long campaigned for the rights to do what they want with and to their bodies nonetheless have to contend with the inevitability that no one’s body can ever be truly her own (Butler, 2004: 26). For all of us, the vulnerability that follows the death of someone close to us is the result of how hugely rupturing this all is to our sense of how we’re composed; and striking out violently as a response is one potential way of processing this rupture. Of growing, again, much larger and more powerful than the person we’ve become in the face of our diminishment.
But is such a reaction inevitable? Butler hopes not, foreseeing a potential for the moment of our ruptured identity to push us not towards a compensatory violence, but towards a process of reflection that might make the world a better place, rather than a more violent one – a process that’s reliant on us becoming comfortable enough with vulnerability to remain in that fragile state long enough to hear where else it might take us, rather than wanting only to resolve it quickly through what Butler calls ‘a fantasy of mastery’ like Ellie’s revenge quest or the US’s retaliatory action against countries that may or may not have had anything to do with 9/11 (Butler, 2004: 29).
One form Butler suggests this reflective process might take is thinking anew about how we tell stories about what happened, especially when our loss has resulted from violence (Butler, 2004: 5). When we tell the story of 9/11, where do we start? Most narrative accounts begin on the day itself – “a group of terrorists flew hijacked planes into the Twin Towers” and everything that comes next is a consequence of this statement. But what if we go back further and begin our account with statements that cast this statement, too, as only the consequence of a statement referring to the world chronologically before, like “The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan was encouraged by the US as a result of its Cold War era foreign policy”? Thinking that doing so excuses 9/11 misses the point – it doesn’t let the perpetrators off the hook, because 9/11 still happened as a result of evil decisions that no one forced them to make, but it does set up a sort of explanatory framework that might engender a perspective that leads to something better than more violence in the aftermath. The US might realise that however diminished it felt after 9/11, it has made other countries feel similarly through its recent history, and then be moved by making this connection towards actions that make the world a place where no country is as likely to feel that way again.
So what if Ellie had sat with the vulnerability forced on her by Joel’s murder and learnt to be comfortable with it and guided by it, rather than immediately setting out on a revenge quest that Butler would argue is motivated by a desire to quash it? Abby clearly hated Joel, just as Ellie now hates Abby. Focusing on this, Ellie might have sought to understand why exactly someone grows to hate someone enough to track them across the US in order to kill them, rather than blindly becoming this same person herself. And forgive me if this sounds ridiculous (and I’ll admit it would’ve made for a less entertaining videogame; maybe one for the HBO show next year?) but what if she then tried to sit down with Abby and have a conversation with her about her motivation? Ellie might have learnt the one fact about Joel’s murder that I don’t think Ellie ever discovers at any point in the game (hit me up BTL if I’m wrong) – that Abby’s father was the doctor that Joel killed in order to save Ellie at the end of the first game. A young woman distraught at the loss of a father figure is going after another young woman with exactly the same motivation, caused by the person the former young woman is mourning herself.
“Abby killed the person I love most in the world” wouldn’t be, any longer, the opening sentence of the narrative Ellie could tell about Joel’s death. It’s not like this knowledge would make Ellie forgive Abby, or stop hurting from her actions, but it would reveal their shared connections in a way that chimes with Hannah Arendt’s argument that “The practise of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world” (Arendt, 1970: 77). Joel’s violence against Abby’s father creates the world in which Abby violently murders Joel, which in turn creates the world in which Ellie murders Abby’s friends as she moves in on her ultimate quarry. Killing Abby wouldn’t change anything, but would only create, in turn, a world in which someone who loved Abby in the same way (like maybe Lev?) would be driven to murder Ellie in order to quash his own vulnerability in the face of his own loss. Ellie’s final decision not to kill Abby, made right on the brink of her death, is a decision that will create, by however small a degree, a world that is less violent. But because she has already killed several members of Abby’s crew and caused all of their surviving friends or relatives to feel the vulnerability of their own diminishment, the world has still become more violent than it would’ve been had Ellie sat and reflected on her own loss instead of pursuing her revenge. How much more violence ensues (and whether or not Ellie will become its victim) will depend on whether or not these friends and relatives pursue the same course of action as first Abby and then Ellie, or whether they are able to respond to their loss differently, as Butler would strongly hope they can find a way of doing.
The narrative structure of The Last of Us Part 2 leads the player through experiencing the loss of the hugely popular Joel for her/himself after spending so much time with him in the first game, through wanting to see Abby dead for what she did, and then to understanding that these same motivations are what guided Abby in the first place – an understanding that might just have saved the lives of all the people Ellie kills in her pursuit. The game ultimately has a lot to say, then, about what we might learn if we reflect on the losses we experience in our own lives and the importance of remaining with the resultant vulnerability long enough for a period of reflection, over following Ellie into the immediate rush of (potentially violent) compensation.
Tim Jones teaches a variety of political and general Humanities modules at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, including “Political Violence: Theoretical Perspectives.” He is also active in the Norwich Green Party and a candidate in the 2021 elections to Norfolk County Council.
Arendt, Hannah (1970). On Violence. Harcourt: Orlando
Butler, Judith (2004). Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence. London and New York: Verso